Eric Raskin

JuanMa takes aim at a “name” against Rafael Marquez

Note: This story originally appeared in the October edition of THE RING magazine. The December issue, with Manny Pacquiao on the cover, is currently on newsstands.

You fight, then you embrace. You fight again, then you embrace again. Another fight, another embrace. That pattern could describe the career of a boxer. It could also describe life for most married couples.

Eight days after he traded punches and then shared a postfight embrace with Bernabe Concepcion in a ring in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Juan Manuel Lopez stood in a church in the island nation he calls home, pledging to have and to hold – but, importantly, not to hold and to hit – Barbara DeJesus till death do them part. The couple met several years before, had two children together and were married in a no-frills civil ceremony in August of last year. With Lopez having added a few six-figure paydays since then, they were finally able to afford the wedding and reception they wanted. More than 250 friends and family members were on hand as Lopez took the final step in deeming Barbara his life partner.

After the wedding, attention quickly shifted from Lopez’s life partner to his next dance partner. The first 29 fights of the 2004 Olympian’s pro career haven’t lacked for much. He’s won alphabet belts at two weights, scored spectacular one-punch knockouts, survived a grueling war, gotten off the canvas to win and drawn crowds everywhere from his homeland to Madison Square Garden. There is, however, one glaring omission on his resume: Lopez has yet to participate in the time-honored tradition of adding to his record the name of an aging, Hall of Fame-bound star.

Enter Rafael Marquez. Fight number 30 for Lopez is his chance to grab the torch from one of his elders. On Nov. 6, three and a half months after his exchange of rings in that Puerto Rican church, the 27-year-old Lopez will enter the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas favored to defeat the 35-year-old Marquez. They will fight, and they will embrace afterward.

What remains to be determined is, in the midst of that post-fight hug, who will be offering condolences and who will be offering congratulations.

Some view Lopez vs. Marquez as almost a mismatch in favor of “JuanMa.” They see a young knockout artist on the way up taking on a fading veteran of numerous grueling battles, and they see a one-sided destruction. Others view it as a toss-up and the toughest test of Lopez’s career. They see an undefeated but vulnerable potential star facing a proven warrior who is rejuvenated after some time off and has dispatched his last two opponents in three rounds apiece.

Marquez has already found the in-ring partner alongside whom he will go down in the history books. He recently completed a legendary four-fight series with Israel Vazquez that produced two Fights of the Year, two Rounds of the Year, two victories apiece and more action than Lopez could see on 100 wedding nights. But could the former bantamweight and junior featherweight champ from Mexico City have room in his life for a second perfect pugilistic partner? As long as you don’t believe Lopez will overwhelm Marquez with ease, the two technicians with a tendency to slug appear made for each other.

“It’s all going to really be determined on whether Marquez can in any way deal with the power of Lopez,” said Showtime analyst Al Bernstein following the Lopez-Concepcion fight. “We know Marquez is going to land punches, because you do against Lopez, and Marquez is a brilliant technician. So if in fact he can hang in there with the power of Lopez, we could be heading to a classic.”

That power of which Bernstein speaks should not be underestimated. Concepcion was a full-sized featherweight who had never been stopped, yet nearly every punch Lopez landed seemed to hurt him. Less than a minute into the fight, Concepcion connected with an orthodox left hook at the same time that Lopez landed his southpaw straight left, and the Puerto Rican’s power sent Concepcion flying back into the ropes for what could arguably have been called a knockdown. About 15 seconds later, Lopez scored with another straight left directly on Concepcion’s chin and followed with a right hook that put the Filipino down.

Concepcion rose at Puerto Rican referee Luis Pabon’s count of six, only to walk into two more flush left hands from JuanMa. The underdog soon found himself in trouble along the ropes, where a crushing left hand made his legs wobbly. Soon thereafter, a clash of heads rocked Concepcion and set him up for a huge left hand that sent him staggering backward into the corner. A one-round blastout appeared imminent until, with 20 seconds to go in the round, Concepcion countered with a left hand high on the head that floored the local hero. It was one of the all-time rewind-live-TV moments of the TiVo era. Rush Limbaugh could start voting Democrat and it would be no more unexpected than the sight of Lopez going down at that particular moment.

Lopez wasn’t hurt badly and he rose immediately, and the bell rang to conclude the Round of the Year candidate before Concepcion could follow up. And just like that, the Filipino’s opportunity had passed.

Just 20 seconds into the second round, a booming straight left put Concepcion down again. He rose in decent shape, but a left to the body soon did damage. Lopez stayed completely poised and contained, waiting for his opening to finish the job, and that opening arose after JuanMa sneaked in a right hook. He pounced with two more hooks and then a left cross that sent Concepcion, 28-4-1 (15 knockouts), sprawling to the canvas. Concepcion got up but couldn’t find his balance, prompting Pabon to wave off the fight at 2:37 of the second round.

“Sometimes you get a little overconfident,” Lopez said of the knockdown he suffered late in the opening round. “I had the fight under control, but he’s a great fighter, strong fighter, a good punch. I have to learn to never be overconfident.”

That’s a lesson that might serve Lopez well on Nov. 6. There are some who view Marquez as little more than a big-name steppingstone on Lopez’s path to an eventual dream fight against fellow rising star Yuriorkis Gamboa. But don’t count Marquez’s promoter, Gary Shaw, among them.

“JuanMa swings wide, and if he does what he did against Concepcion, he’s going to go down and it could be for the count,” Shaw said. “I really think we knock him out. JuanMa’s very chinny. Marquez is very experienced. The moment Marquez sees an opening, the next thing you’ll see is JuanMa down.

“Raffy’s a sure first-round ballot Hall of Famer. JuanMa’s not there yet. But I see this the same way I always saw the Marquez-Vazquez wars: I don’t think either one can miss the other one. Both guys can go down. I think it’s going to be a terrific fight. For fight fans and for TV, it’s spectacular.”

When Shaw and others reference Lopez’s vulnerability, they aren’t only talking about the one punch that Concepcion landed. They’re also thinking of JuanMa’s October ’09 fight against Rogers Mtagwa, a brutal battle in which Lopez was badly hurt throughout the last couple of rounds and had to rely on pure heart to survive. On the one hand, he deserved praise for the determination he showed. On the other hand, he was taking on a journeyman-type who wasn’t supposed to pose any threat at all.

Lopez, at his best, is one of the most well-rounded boxer-punchers in the game today. His victories over Daniel Ponce De Leon, Gerry Penalosa and Steven Luevano, all world-class fighters, were virtuoso performances. If he has experienced defensive lapses or moments of weakness against Mtagwa and Concepcion, those negatives are quite rightly outweighed by the upside he has shown.

Vazquez, the great rival of Marquez whose career appears to have reached its end following his bloody three-round TKO loss to Marquez in May, is a believer in the abilities of Lopez. He has as much respect for Marquez as anybody on the planet, but he’s still picking Lopez to win.

“Juan Manuel Lopez is the younger fighter, he’s strong, he has power in both hands, and I feel that his youth will overcome Marquez,” Vazquez said. “I think it’s going to be a good test for Lopez. I don’t think he’s fought guys the caliber of Marquez or with the experience of Marquez. I think they put him in with some good, strong opponents, but not as technically sound as Marquez. So I think this is going to be his biggest test. Whether he can take Marquez’s punch, I don’t know.

“They’re both strong fighters and good punchers, so it could definitely be a candidate for Fight of the Year. Maybe not as good as my fights with Marquez, but still very good. And at the end of the day, it will probably be Lopez who wins.”

If Lopez does indeed prevail, it will be his latest step along the trail blazed by the two Puerto Rican boxing icons who most recently preceded him, Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto. Lopez is proving himself to be a legitimate successor to their legacies by showing vulnerability and a penchant for drama en route to victory. He can put opponents on the deck at any moment, but as we saw against Concepcion, he can also find himself looking upward from a single shot. Not all elite Puerto Rican fighters fit this mold – certainly, junior flyweight Ivan Calderon doesn’t – but the general tendency among Boricua belters is to be equal parts pound-for-pound-worthy and crowd-pleasing.

In fighting Marquez, Lopez is doing just as Trinidad and Cotto did before him – trying to elevate his star by bumping off a major name. For the unbeaten Trinidad, the opportunity came when he dominated a 30-something Hector Camacho in 1994. For the unbeaten Cotto, it came when he edged a 30-something Shane Mosley in 2007. The closest Lopez has come is respected ex-titlist Penalosa, but the Filipino hardly qualified as a star.

Marquez is the biggest name currently residing at featherweight. He is to Lopez as Camacho and Mosley were to Trinidad and Cotto.

And Marquez makes the fight perfect for Lopez in one more way: He’s a Mexican. The Puerto Rican vs. Mexican rivalry has been quite possibly the greatest ongoing international feud in the sport of boxing over the last 30-plus years, from Wilfredo Gomez vs. Carlos Zarate in 1978 through to the present. Marquez might have at least one advantage: Las Vegas is more traditionally a Mexican fight town than a Puerto Rican one, meaning it’ll feel like a road game for Lopez at the MGM Grand.

“It could affect JuanMa because he’s used to coming out in Puerto Rico to the cheers of all the great Puerto Rican fight fans, and he’s not going to have that in Las Vegas. All he’ll have is the folks from Top Rank yelling for him, so that’s 16 people,” Shaw joked. “Everyone else will be in Rafael’s corner, he’ll have all the fans. We’ll do easily 10,000-plus of real, sold tickets, not papered.”

If indeed the fight draws that kind of crowd, and they’re rooting fervently along nationalistic lines, it’s hard to imagine either fighter blocking them out and waging a disciplined, clinical boxing match. Lopez vs. Marquez has all the makings of a fight in which the considerable skills of each man get left in the dressing rooms and they trade bombs for as many rounds as the fight lasts.

Perhaps Marquez is too old and has been in too many wars to provide a stiff challenge for JuanMa; maybe Vazquez and his scar tissue made Marquez look like he had more left than he really does.

Then again, maybe Marquez is still close to his peak and, using his veteran wiles, he can finish the job that Mtagwa and Concepcion couldn’t.

After Marquez-Vazquez IV, all parties agreed there was no need for a fifth fight. But if Marquez turns out to be more than just a name for Lopez to add to his resume, then we might be looking at a technicians’ brawl that fits in nicely alongside any in the Marquez-Vazquez series.

And if it even remotely resembles something out of that legendary rivalry, then Lopez vs. Marquez will be a fight we can all embrace.

THE THREE BORICUAS

Less than two weeks before he defeated Concepcion, Lopez celebrated his 27th birthday. Here’s a career comparison of the modern Puerto Rican superstars, Felix Trinidad, Miguel Cotto, and Lopez, a couple of weeks after each turned 27:

TRINIDAD COTTO LOPEZ
Record 36-0 (30) 31-0 (25) 29-0 (26)
Knockout percentage 83% 81% 90%
Knockdowns suffered 4 1 1
Titleholders defeated 5 4 2
Biggest name on resume De La Hoya Mosley Penalosa

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